Junior doctors who work long hours are twice the risk of experiencing mental illness or suicide, compared to junior doctors who work fewer hours, according to new research.
Chief psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute and UNSW Associate Professor Samuel Harvey said researchers were expecting to find a link between work hours and mental health, but they were "surprised by just how strong that link was".
The research, published in BMJ Open on Wednesday, found junior doctors who work more than 55 hours a week are at twice the risk of mental illness or suicide compared to their counterparts who worked between 40 and 44 hours a week.
"It's an extraordinary finding given that it's not at all uncommon for junior doctors to be working those hours," he said, adding the results were the same for men and women.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) Council of Doctors In Training chairwoman Dr Tessa Kennedy said it was important to note it was not just the number of hours worked that could impact on junior doctor health, and factors including the pattern of work and the work environment played a part.
"If you’re in a well-supported environment and your boss has got your back, all those things can offset some of the difficulties [of working long hours]," she said, but added addressing work hours was a "really tangible place to start".
However, she said restricting the number of hours doctors could work was a simplistic solution. She said ensuring there were sufficient breaks between shifts and on-call periods and making sure doctors were being paid for overtime would be more effective.
"I think it’s important that we address not just rostered hours but also unrostered hours," she said.
The research looked at data from 2706 full-time junior doctors who responded to a comprehensive Beyond Blue survey from 2013. While the data was six years old, Associate Professor Harvey said the findings were still relevant.
"In terms of understanding the link between hours worked and these mental health outcomes, there’s no reason to think that would be different in 2013 than it is now," he said.
Dr James Lawler, who is a psychiatry registrar and co-chair of the AMA's doctors in training committee, said he knows certain registrars who work 16-hour days throughout the week, on top of overtime.
"I think the system around junior doctors is unaware of the hours they’re working sometimes, because so much unrostered overtime is going unclaimed, unpaid," he said.
"Often the on-call shifts [rostering] are quite fair but don’t take into account how often the doctor had to go into the hospital, how many hours they spent on the phone, and they’re expected to turn up the next day as well."
Both Dr Kennedy and Associate Professor Harvey said initiatives like NSW Health's Wellbeing and Support Plan were great, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
"It’s not the case the government has been asleep at the wheel on this, this is a part of their plan and I think this research adds to the importance of it," Associate Professor Harvey said.
Dr Lawler said ultimately improving the mental health of doctors was also about patient care.
"Doctors who are healthy and who have good wellbeing themselves are going to be able to provide good care to patients," he said.